New York lifts indoor mask mandate, with California and N.J. mandates also set to end
Updated February 9, 2022 at 12:59 PM ET
New York is lifting part of its indoor mask mandate, joining a growing list of states that are making similar adjustments.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced at a briefing Wednesday that the statewide vaccine-or-mask requirement for businesses will end on Thursday, though masks will still be required in schools and some other places where people congregate, including health care facilities, shelters and public transit stations. Counties, cities and businesses can still choose to require masks, she added.
She said declining COVID-19 infection rates — as well as rising hospital capacity and vaccination rates — have made it possible to rescind the statewide mandate, which was reimplemented as omicron cases surged in December.
For reference, the seven-day average of cases in New York was less than 35 per 100,000 on Wednesday, compared to nearly 382 per 100,000 on the Jan. 9 peak.
"We are not where we were in early December," Hochul said. "New Yorkers did the right thing to get through the winter surge, and we can now lift the statewide mask-or-vaccine requirement for indoor businesses starting tomorrow."
Hochul also said the state will reevaluate the mask mandate for schools in early March.
In a virtual meeting Tuesday, Hochul discussed the statewide school mask mandate with state and school officials and organizations.
"We certainly understand the frustration that a number of parents are articulating about the mask mandates that exist throughout the country," said Jay Worona, the general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association. "We are hoping that all the decisions that are going fall into place are going to be consistent with what science and metrics are telling us."
New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon and California have all announced plans this week to lift their indoor mask mandates in February and March, pointing to the dramatic drop in daily new COVID-19 cases as the omicron surge recedes.
The move is being welcomed by some as a sign that states are learning to live with the virus, though it goes against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance encouraging universal mask-wearing in schools. It also comes as high-quality masks are, at least theoretically, more accessible to all Americans.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the CDC is not changing its mask guidance. The CDC recommends masking in doors in areas of high transmission, which includes most of the country. While cases and hospitalizations are decreasing and the numbers are "encouraging," Walensky said at a briefing Wednesday that it's not time to change CDC guidance. "Uur hospitalizations are still high, our deaths are still high," she said. "We are encouraged by the trends but we are not there yet."
Other public health experts also say it's too early to be lifting mask mandates altogether.
"I think the science is pointing us in a number of directions," said Mercedes Carnethon, epidemiologist and vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University. "And if we use our past experience as a guide, I think it's premature in many regions of the country to consider lifting these mask mandates."
Carnethon told NPR's All Things Considered that she believes certain conditions — like the community's rates of transmission and vaccination — must be met before mask mandates can be lifted.
Here are the fast facts for each state:
In California, the state is ending indoor masking requirements for vaccinated people starting Tuesday but has not said when it will lift its statewide mandate for K-12 schools or high-risk settings like nursing homes and hospitals.
Unvaccinated people will still be required to wear masks indoors throughout the state, and individual businesses can still require masks if they want to.
Notably, counties and municipalities in California are allowed to have stricter rules than the state does, and areas like Los Angeles County are choosing to keep their indoor masking requirements in place for now.
That creates a patchwork of COVID-19 rules across the state, as KPCC's senior health reporter Jackie Fortier told Morning Edition. Such a system could be especially confusing for people who live in one county and work in another, like commuters from San Bernardino who work in Los Angeles.
Health officials in LA County say that there are still too many people getting infected and that essential workers — who have had the highest case, hospitalization and death rates throughout the pandemic — "will pay the price for lifting the mask mandate too early," according to Fortier.
Under new criteria announced last week, masks will come off in LA County as community transmission declines, starting outdoors at schools and then indoors at offices and restaurants. As Fortier notes, that means the thousands of fans attending Sunday's Super Bowl game in Inglewood will have to mask up.
NPR's Jonathan Franklin contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.
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